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Using Mastery Learning for Success with Difficult Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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I tried every trick in the book: framing the lesson, detailed instructions, hands-on learning, proximity, hand signals, rewards, punishment, and ultimatums -- all to no avail. My middle school Spanish students continued to want to chat, throw paper airplanes, get out of their seats, and disrupt instruction. Only two things that seemed to work in getting my students to pay attention were total physical response (TPR) and worksheets.

I was in a quandary because I couldn't do TPR all the time and I only do worksheets as a last resort- though I was reaching that point very quickly.

In taking inventory of the situation (called reflection), I realized that several of the students already had Spanish language skills, and that these were some of the ring leaders of classroom disruption. Rather than let their energies be used to disrupt the class, I decided to enlist their aid in helping the students learn in Spanish. This takes some trust and certainly is a risk.

Defining Mastery Learning

I couldn't have them doing my job of teaching, but I could have them help the student to gain mastery over Spanish basics that I had already taught through a system called mastery learning.

So what is mastery learning? The concept is simple: Students master concepts and skills before going onto other learning. How do you know they mastered it? You give them tests. If they do not reach mastery, then they go back and study and take the test again until they pass it. Benjamin Bloom, of Bloom's Taxonomy fame, came up with mastery learning in 1971. This was a time when leveled readers became popular, as well as many other "go at your own pace" programs.

I had noticed that because of the unruly nature of my Spanish classes, a large portion of students had not mastered some of the real basics of Spanish using traditional methods. I also discovered that some of the basic concepts of Spanish that they should have learned the year before had not been learned. I realize that part of the difficulty is that I am teaching a high school level course in middle school, and the other part is that learning languages is not easy, no matter what age.

In the Classroom

The first thing I did was to find basic explanations of Spanish concepts and put them in study sheets that my Spanish speaking helpers could help the students understand as they individually reviewed the information. Using the mastery-learning concept, I engaged these Spanish speakers to help small groups of students in my class (no more than five) to master concrete concepts such as plural of nouns, verb agreement, and subject pronouns. They read through the sheets and they looked at the examples together.

The Spanish speaking helper would ask "checking for understanding" questions and once they felt their small group was ready, they would administer a small quiz on that subject. The students would retake the quiz until they got one hundred percent correct.

Students keep track of their progress on a chart they have in their binders. For extra motivation, I made charts with their student numbers and placed them on the wall and would fill in a square for each concept mastered.

After five concepts mastered, the students get certificates of mastery. Twice a week the class time is dedicated to mastery learning while the other three days I focus on conversation, vocabulary development, and pronunciation.

Refocusing the effort of my Spanish-speaking students using mastery learning has made all the difference. I am happy to report that the misbehavior was curbed to a great extent and the students were able to focus on learning Spanish once again. What are your successes with mastery learning?

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Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Great method of teaching that validates the student's abilities with trust and good expectations while providing thorough, organized instruction. Always worked for my in teaching reading for all grade levels.

Nini White's picture
Nini White
Educator, Author, Consultant, Founder-Developer of Kids' Own Wisdom

Kids, even from the earliest ages, are really much more interested in their peers than their teachers.... and, boy oh boy, does your brilliant solution ever prove it. It also demonstrates that "difficult" students are just about always "bored" or "under valued" students. Combine, and constructively make best use of, those two realities (interest in peers + difficult = bored) and big turnarounds are possible in any discipline, as you've so creatively proven in your Spanish class. Thanks for sharing.

Jennifer Gunn's picture

I use mastery-based learning in my classroom, but Ben Johnson's approach blends that with student ownership. Giving students a leadership role helps empower them and form deeper relationships with content and the learning process. Utilizing the student expert model is a great way to help kids who are more advanced feel engaged and challenged, while also helping struggling students learn at their own pace. In the end, they all get there. Growth happens, and though it may not be all at the same level, progress occurs. Mastery learning asks students to complete assignments that serve as demonstrations of their understanding of content and skills.
Not just busy work. A student's grade reflects both their
efforts and learning progress over time. Ideally, students should have regular opportunities for revision to improve their work over time. Through revision, students will progressively demonstrate their understanding of class content and skills.
By receiving separate grades for different skills, this allows students to clearly see their successes and also see what needs work. Grades are tied to specific skills, so they have more meaning to the student.

Chris Purcell's picture

Are the check for understanding questions developed by you or the students? If possible, I think it would be great learning opportunity for your spanish speaking students to develop their own levels of question before they facilitate.

Timothy Comer's picture
Timothy Comer
High School Science Teacher

This seems like a video game to me. A lot of people can complete the first 10 levels in "Angry Birds" but can you get "three stars" on each level? Can you find all of the the golden eggs (or feathers or whatever)?. Kids today are being conditioned to find additional value in mastery and completion. I thank the cultural penetration of "nerd culture" for this. I mean, your not a true fan unless you have consumed every single bit of media from the source material.
Mastery based learning is organic to the modern student.

Cathy Busby's picture
Cathy Busby
10 and 11th grade English Teacher from South Carolina

This mastery teaching idea I have heard about before, and I agree that too many of our students end up moving forward to the next lesson before they have mastered what they needed to master. The only issue I have with this method is the time it takes to continually retest for mastery. I would be concerned that I would be taking valuable time away from learning the additional concepts that are needed to fulfill the standards and curriculum required. I do like the idea of having "master assistants", and I have wanted to implement something similar for a while. I have also seen that students who are bored or challenged beyond their mastery ability easily become distracted and use their time unwisely in class. I think that may be part of what was happening. It's great that you found a positive way to combat that problem!
Thanks for the post!

Cathy's picture

I think this idea of mastery teaching is such a great idea! Not only its it motivating for the students to master the concept but once they master all 5 concepts, they get a certificate. It also does not put a time constraint on it. They have time to go back and study if at first did not succeed. Also, putting the chart in the classroom is another motivating tool!

Louise Dewar's picture
Louise Dewar
History Teacher from Tinton Falls, NJ

I think this is a great idea but I want point out that Ben did something that too few of us think to do: he separated the routine learning (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) that is specific and precise from the learning that is applied and frequently unique to the individual. I am completely convinced that, in terms of things we used to teach by rote, mastery learning is the way to go. It taps into our students interest in "besting" their last score, even competing with each other for top score, AND our desire that they learn to work cooperatively - all of which they already do when they're playing video games. That is, they already understand this learning paradigm. I imagine that if you had the resources, being able to provide these kinds of routine exercises via some electronic platform would only ramp up the success rate of your students.

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